The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

All Issues
JUNE 2011 Issue

REPORT CARD: The Great Technology Scam

Describing her tour of the Community Partnership Charter School (CPCS) in Clinton Hill, one Brooklyn mom was amped. She didn’t have much to say about the curriculum or the school culture: the school’s primary appeal was the stuff. “They have a huge computer lab with a computer for each kid,” she enthused. “And Smart Boards in all the classrooms.”

She’s not alone in her technological ecstasy. School officials in Brooklyn—whether in modest schools like Clinton Hill’s P.S. 20 or better-funded ones like Park Slope’s P.S. 10—seem eager to demonstrate their fancy technology to potential parents, and the show-and-tell always elicits oohs and ahhs that go beyond polite response. CPCS performs above average at marketing its bells and whistles, however: blanketing the neighborhood with fliers displaying a beautiful, attentive-looking black girl sitting at a computer. So much bling—you’d never know that public schools were under massive budgetary assault.

But that assault is a big problem. To make competent use of technology, a person has to be able to read and write. Math skills are also a plus. To become the next Steve Jobs, she needs to know how to do much more: play, invent, and create. To learn any of those things, she will need teachers. And the Bloomberg Department of Education is spending billions on bright, shiny objects while shedding teachers as fast and as recklessly as politically possible.

The mayor’s current proposed budget continues this trend with abandon, spending more than half a billion more on technology for the Department of Education next year than this year. The proposed budget also includes plans to lay off over 6,000 teachers, a move the mayor has repeatedly blamed on Albany’s budgetary woes. But the huge proposed increase in tech spending significantly exceeds the savings in teachers’ salaries, suggesting that no one at the DOE has even tried to avoid the layoffs through other cuts.

Putting computers in the schools in no way guarantees that teachers or children will use them in sensible ways. When I visited P.S. 20, a fine elementary school in Clinton Hill beloved by parents, the fourth-graders were on their computers—new computers the principal was proud to show off. Asked what they were doing, the children were completely unable to explain. Finally one boy told me, “We’re playing a game.” A few kids were on Google. The rest seemed even less focused.

Experts agree that computers in the classroom have few proven benefits for children elementary-school age or younger. In fact, considering the massive spending and rhetorical boosterism around online learning, there are, according to a 2010 literature review by the U.S. Department of Education, disgracefully few rigorous studies on its effectiveness for K-12 students. Even the right-wing ghouls at Michigan’s Mackinac Center—who are bullish on the potential cost savings—admit as much, in a recent paper making only the modest claim that “some students, particularly older ones” might learn as well from virtual programs as from face-to-face schooling. Compared to spending the money on teachers, then—and on greater school capacity, given the horrible overcrowding problems in many of our schools—much of the half billion on tech may well be a waste.

But some of it may be worse than wasteful. An excessive reliance on technology may be harmful to young children’s learning and health. Sitting in front of a computer all day is unhealthy enough for adults, but for children’s still-growing bodies, the potential for repetitive stress injury, eyestrain, and radiation exposure is frightening. Not to mention obesity: young children should be running around throughout the day, and even as millions are invested in technologies encouraging the sedentary life, some elementary schools in Brooklyn have no gym teacher. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict limits on computer time, even for older children and even for educational purposes.

But the dangers can be cognitive as well. According to an exhaustive report on the matter by the Alliance for Children, many teachers observe that extensive use of computers, with their ready-made imagery, hampers children’s creativity by curbing their ability to form pictures in their own minds. (It’s curious that the same parents who would be outraged if their children were watching TV in school are thrilled by all this computer technology, when many of the dangers may be the same.) Too much time on computers—with the constant invitation to click elsewhere—may also impair children’s ability to focus sustained attention on anything.

My five-year-old son can use an iPhone more competently than I can. But the reason he’s taken to the technology is that he can read and write. This means that he can have endless fun looking up information—where is Joey Ramone buried? Is there such a thing as a blobfish? Is a cheetah the fastest mammal? He can also send sly text messages to people in his dad’s address book. But many New York City public school children cannot read at grade-level. Last year, more than half failed their English exams. What can such kids do with a computer? They can play Angry Birds.

The only thing that has been proven to help children learn to speak, read, and write—according to psychologists Alison Garton and Chris Pratt, who have reviewed the research thoroughly—is face-to-face conversation with someone who knows the language better than they do. The more time they spend on a computer, the less time they are engaged in such conversation. And as more money is spent on computers while laying off teachers, kids will have many fewer adults around to talk with.

As Steve Jobs himself said years ago in an interview with Wired magazine, “I used to think that technology could help education…but I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve.” It’s worth noting that Steve Jobs shares many of Bloomberg’s right-wing fantasies about education, and then some, even enthusing about vouchers—he just happens to be too knowledgeable about computers to fall for this one.

Because the limitations of technology here seem so painfully obvious, it’s hard to escape the impression that much of New York’s massive tech spending spree is fueled by ignoble motives: union-busting and cronyism.

More online instruction, conservative “reformers” reason—and judging from this budget, the city apparently agrees—should ultimately render teachers and their pesky unions irrelevant. Many of the technology boosters are honest about this motive. Terry M. Moe, author of Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics and the Future of America, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, explained it this way in a 2009 interview:

For the first time in modern history we’re able to substitute technology for labor in education. Technology is really cheap, and labor is very expensive and getting more expensive over time. So this allows us to use our scarce resources in much more productive ways…there will be fewer teachers per student in the future and fewer union members. Sheer numbers are key to unions’ power so their power is going to suffer.

With the unions out of the way, Moe exults, the whole conservative reform package—merit pay, vouchers and so on—can proceed full steam ahead.

And we can’t ignore the fabulous opportunities for friends of Bloomberg to reap profits: former schools superintendent Joel Klein, for example, is now working at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp as CEO of its new education technology division, presumably pimping out his access to the marketplace of K-12 public schools in New York City. Shortly after hiring Klein late last year, Murdoch paid $360 million for a majority-ownership of Wireless Generation, an education software company. Klein is reportedly making $2 million in base salary at News Corp. He also got a $1 million signing bonus and will be eligible for an annual bonus of at least $1.5 million. (Klein made a mere quarter of a million in his previous thankless job.) Wonder what goodies await Dennis Walcott when he retires from the DOE?

 “Report Card” would like to see technology used creatively and in moderation in high schools, where students’ brains and literacy skills may be developed enough to use to use it well. It has been admittedly depressing to walk into secondary school “computer” classes and see students are using decade-old equipment, not to mention vocational automotive courses completely uninformed by contemporary electronic technology. But no research supports spending the kind of money we’re now spending in New York, at the expense of developing skills that depend on human contact.

 “Historical precedent shows we can turn out amazing human beings without technology,” Steve Jobs reflected in the same Wired interview. “Precedent also shows we can create very uninteresting human beings with technology.” And here in New York, we’re in grave danger of continuing to do the latter unless we shift our priorities.


Liza Featherstone

LIZA FEATHERSTONE is a Clinton Hill writer and mother whose son will begin public school this fall.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2011

All Issues